Productized Services with Brian Casel
In this episode of Billable Hours, I talk to Brian Casel. Brian is the founder of ProcessKit, a software tool that helps agencies document their processes and also helps them actually follow those processes. He's also the creator of the Productized online course and he runs his own productized service AudienceOps. Listen to hear Brian's advice on how to move from billable hours and into the world of productizing.
- Brian's website
- Productize & Scale
- Brian's podcast BootstrappedWeb
- Brian on Twitter
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Transcript of this episode (automatically generated)
Today on the show I'm excited to talk to Brian Casel, a true legend when it comes to productizing. Brian is the founder of quite a few different businesses and products, but two of them are especially relevant to you as a listener of this podcast. The first one is ProcessKit, a software as a service product that helps you document your processes and also helps you actually follow those processes.
The other one is Productized an online course and community that teaches you how to productize your client work. Brian is also the co-host of the BootstrappedWeb podcast, and you can find him on Twitter at CasJam. Before we begin the episode, I want to tell you a bit about Branch. Branch is my business and the sponsor of this podcast.
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So go check it out. And if you open up the live chat widget and identify yourself as a listener of this podcast, we'll double the amount of free deployments in your account. Yep. Twice as many deployments without paying, you can sign up for free on branchci.com. I start out this episode by asking Brian a pressing question, Brian, what's so bad about billable hours.
I love that first question. Billable hours is obviously charging money for your time. And you know, you're, you're calling out like the headline on my productize and scale website. And the thing is like, that's sort of just a way to speak to what most agencies end up running against it for a lot of freelancers and consultants as well.
Which is at a certain point, you know, you get to this point where it's like is my entire business reliant on me, sitting here at my computer, doing the work, delivering the services. And, and even if you start to, you know, hire people to do some of your tasks, if you're still billing by the hour, Still relies on you to be there and, and to drive every single project, you start to see the ceiling insight.
I mean, I definitely ran into that early in my career. I was a freelance web designer, web developer. I was doing a lot of work with WordPress and I didn't even bill by the hour, either as a freelancer, but I built by the project. So what would you say is the alternative to build by the hour? Is that value based pricing?
Yes. So like a lot of people say that the alternative is to do, do a project based. Some people call it value based pricing and that's one way to look at it. And I also went that way when I was a freelancer, I would just talk to a potential client, figure out what the project scope is, and then just give them a flat price.
And if there's scope creep, then we deal with that later. But I think that's a good start, but what I tried to get across when I talk about productized services, is that that too still doesn't solve all of your problems, all, all of your stresses as a freelancer or as an agency. Because what I ran into was, even though I was doing project based pricing, maybe value-based pricing still, every single project was completely different.
You know, I was, I was doing websites, but I was doing websites for universities and then websites for doctors and then websites for restaurants and websites for a blog. Like that's still a completely different project, but that's also a completely different customer each time when you're doing a project based.
Pricing strategy in the background is still based on the amount of hours that you expect to use on it. Like, is it still in theory, billable hours, but they just, basically, you try to guess how many hours that's going to be, and then you make an offer based on that. I know that a lot of agencies do it that way, but I never did.
I honestly, I just never really cared so much about, um, the hours that I spent. I only just sort of cared about like, does this project basically seem profitable to me? Yeah. When I was, uh, when I was a freelancer, it all that mattered. Was that I made X thousand of dollars a month. I'm doing my work to keep the bills paid, basically.
And you know, a lot of times, like as, as you grow as a freelancer or an agency, you start to raise your rates. So like the same project, the same scope, the same requirements that you might do in year one, you can start to charge five X for that. In year three. And that's also where you get into like the misaligned incentives of like billable hours.
Because as you get better at your job, your skill set, or as your team gets better and better, they become faster and more efficient. That doesn't mean that they should charge less and less really. They should be charging more and more, but that's the opposite of, you know, if you're, if you're charging by the billable hours, but even if you're billing by the project, you still run into the ceiling of like the number of simultaneous projects that you can take on.
But more importantly, If you're doing projects for anyone and everyone and all different types of projects, scopes. You're still in this treadmill of, Oh, we have to create a new custom proposal. We've got to do this whole discovery process. We've got a hope and rely on referrals. You know, we can't really do any sort of real marketing because we don't have a target customer.
We don't, we don't have one person that we're speaking to. And that's where I get it to productize services is because like, you know, eventually you want to figure out like how can this become a, an actual business and an actual brand. That I can go market actively.
Yeah. So, so let's talk about productized services because it sounds like that's basically the answer to all of these issues. Like basically with, you know, like traditional client work, it sounds like you started from scratch. Every time you start a project because you have to figure out everything and come up with everything or reinvent the wheel basically for this customer.
Um, but it sounds like part-time services is a very good answer to this. Um, so let's talk a bit about basically what a prioritize service is and, um, And how it solves some of these issues that you just mentioned. Yeah. So with productized services, you know, a lot of people like to sort of like compare it to freelancing and, or, you know, just agency services in general.
And one way that I like to differentiate it is that yes, it's still done by people. Largely, uh, you know, manually delivered services. And in many cases you can combine some software, some, some techniques, whether it's somebody else's software product or your own, but there's always an element of personally done for you or done with you services.
But the real difference is that your. Targeting one ideal type of customer you're solving the same problem again and again, and you're doing it in a very consistent way. Like even if you dial in one problem to solve, we all know there's a thousand different ways to build the same type of website. So your product has service business.
Should. Basically settle on your ideal methodology, your tool set your process, um, the systems that the roles on your team who need to deliver that, the timeline of how it gets delivered, all of that can become highly, highly standardized so that it can run very, very predictably. That's the goal of doing a productized services that you can literally 10 X and 20 X, the number of customers that you bring on every month and your team, the way that you're able to do that is because you know, that.
Your processes run very predictably because typically with an agency, even as you start to grow, you still start to hit that friction of like all, but even just hiring another person. That's, that's a lot of work to get them trained up and to figure out, you know, who the right person is. Um, with a productized service, everything becomes more predictable.
It sounds like potentially with a part-time service, you have to say no a lot, because you only want to work on like a very specific type of projects, basically the type of work that you have sort of productized and are offering in the marketplace. So I'm imagining, like if you start out as a kind of like local WordPress agency, are you moving to.
Uh, more like productized philosophy, potentially. Like you'll have to say no to a lot of projects because they don't really fit whatever you're offering, you know? I think yes. And no. First of all, early on in your transition from general consulting into, into a productized service. Yeah. There might be some of that.
I'm certainly not recommending just overnight. Decide like Friday of this week, that's the last day I'm doing general services. And then from that time on, it's all I'm going to say no to everyone, except for the ones that fit my box. Like, no, I'm not, I'm not suggesting that it's, it's always a gradual, you know, you phase out the old stuff, you phase in the new stuff.
Right. But that being said, as you start to get traction with a productized service and you become more successful with it, you know, more. Really good customers coming your way, and then you can develop really good case studies. And then you can literally start to actually do marketing for your service because you know who your best customers are at that point, it starts to naturally attract the best.
Perfect customers, because now you've become known as the solution for that problem. Right? I mean, I run audience ops. It's a blog content service. Like there are a lot of people who don't know me or anything, they just, at this point have, have heard of audience ops and they, they come in already convinced, like they already know that they need blog content produced.
They don't need selling on that. And frankly, like the positioning of the whole business, like. Turns the other people away naturally. Right? Like we don't get people coming asking for website design because it's abundantly clear. We don't do website design, you know? Um, we just do blog writing. So yeah. So it's like, once you figure out a way to kind of.
Package your services and more similar to how you would offer a product. You set the marketing and just turning it into a business, becomes something you can do. Like marketing becomes easier, your messaging around what you're offering. Like it might be easier if you were just saying we're a WordPress agency.
If you're a WordPress agency, designing websites for whatever new CMS or something. Yeah. Yeah. The thing I love to talk about is that it's. Once you make your way to like a productized offering that has a really strong value proposition. You basically get it to a point where for the customer, it's just a yes or no proposition.
It's like, yes, this is a perfect fit for me or no, I'm not the right person for that. And so it becomes a lot easier. To sell a new customer, but it's also a lot easier for a new customer to buy your service. You compare that to agency services where you'll spend hours doing meetings, you'll then spend a day plus writing up a whole custom proposal, and then you send it to them.
And then you've got to negotiate back and forth on what what's in the project scope. When you're doing these hours estimates and all these different things. It's like a lot of time and effort on your part. And it's a ton of time and frustration for them. Cause they, they sorta know that they have this problem.
Then they got to figure out well, is this agency actually going to deliver with this number of hours and all this stuff? So with a protest service, first of all, you don't need to do. Custom proposals. It's this is the problem that we solve. This is how we solve it. This is the price point. And for the customer, you know, they come to your site or they hear about you, you know, how are they?
They find you it's Oh, everything that they're showing me completely resonates me. Like they get me, they're describing the problem. Like they're inside my own head. Like, clearly they've worked with hundreds of other customers who are just like me, right. They get me. And if they have that sense, then it's like coming to Amazon and finding the product that you came there to find.
And then it's like, yep. Purchase. But if it's not the right fit, that that would be clear right away as well. And they probably wouldn't even reach out, you know? So it just makes it easier and less friction on both for both parties.
So you fronted least. Two different part-time services that I know of. And the first one is restaurant engine, and the second one is audience ops. And kind of the way I understand the, the journey restaurant engine was your kind of the way you got into all this productizing stuff. And after running that business and also selling it, you started teaching other people how to run a practice service.
And then audience ops is kind of like. You designing, I want to say the ideal productized service, because at this point you have some experience, you've done it before you've seen other people do it. Um, and you kind of do it again. So I think. I want to hear about restaurant engine and kind of like how you got into prototype services.
And then I kind of want to get the roadmap that you followed for audience ops and kind of like how you got that off the ground or, um, uh, that's mostly correct what you were just saying. So my background is I'm a web designer, mostly designer front end kind of person first. And then, uh, you know, years ago, 10 plus years ago, I got heavily into WordPress.
I was doing a lot of WordPress. Projects for clients. Um, and then I built restaurant engine, which when I first started it, I started that business around 2011 or so at the time, the thought was like, I want to build a SaaS. I wanna, I wanna make this a SaaS that's built on WordPress. And the idea was it would be a niche niche.
Niche, uh, website builder for, for restaurants and we'll call it restaurant engine and any restaurant can come on board and sign themselves up. And I invested a lot in building this like fancy signup system and automatically creates a website for them on our WordPress multi-site network and had templates and all these features built in what I very quickly learned was restaurant owners don't want to do all that.
They just want a website. So I started offering. Done for you set ups just to get them on board on onto the platform. I was offering that for free. And then eventually I started making it like an optional setup fee. And then eventually I learned that all the best customers are the ones who pay the setup fee.
So why don't we just make that required for everyone? And then ultimately that was like the business model was, it was a paid done for you set up and then they're just subscribed like a SaaS, but they get like done for you. Updates to your website. Like you need to change out our photos, just send it to our team and we'll, we'll swap them in for you.
And so, like we, we used our tech that we built on for restaurant engine to make our team really, really efficient at setting up these websites for restaurants. And that's, that's where it started to click that. Like, this is really. Not a SaaS. This is actually more of a productized service with a little bit of tech that powers it.
Is there a lesson there that if your customer don't really care by using your software, like, it might be an idea to think about, like, if they actually do need to use that software, if you can just use it on behalf of them and kind of offer like a software with a service, I think I've heard it. Yeah. I love that model the software with a service.
I've got an article about that on my website. Um, Also, uh, you know, speaking of product services, I have this newer article that's that lays out like six different business models, even within productized services. There's different variations that, that have worked. You were saying about like, like the ideal model for productized services.
And the way that audience ops was built is like, that's just one, but there's many others that have grown much larger than, than audience ops. And so we kind of go through all those examples on, on the article. I can link that up. Yeah. We'll link that up in the show notes. Yeah. From there. Yeah. I did start teaching productized services still near the end of when I owned restaurant engine.
I think I launched that course in 2014 and it continues to this day. I've got a little community around it and the training has been updated a few times in 2015. I exited restaurant engine and. Started audience ops right around the same time that I sold restaurant engine. Yeah. So do you want to talk about what audience ups is and how you started it?
The journey is documented on your podcast. I remember listening to your podcast back then and enjoying following that journey. Yeah. Yeah. That's on a bootstrapped web with my buddy Jordan gal. Yeah. Audience ops started in 2015 and the idea at the time was, you know, I knew that I was exiting restaurant engine, so I was looking for.
What's the next business that I could start that, you know, because the, the exit from restaurant engine, it was a nice cash exit, but it. Wasn't like life changing. I definitely still had to work after that. So I, I was really thinking about like, what's the fastest way to basically replace my bootstrapper income from a restaurant.
Imagine, cause that's going to go away in a few months and I don't want, I just burn through the cash that I get from the exit. So I was considering a few different options. I was even looking at a SaaS idea at the time, but I came to the conclusion that it would just take way too long. To get a new SaaS software product built and validated and first customers and get it up to an MRR level that even came close to restaurant engine.
I was thinking about just like burning my cash from the exit and taking like a year or two to do that still. I just didn't feel comfortable with that. So I looked to the productized service model and within 30 days, It was already halfway up to the MRR that restaurant engine had. And within 60 days it definitely surpassed it and it went from it.
It just grew so much faster than restaurant engine did. That's incredible. That's the thing with productized services that you don't need that many customers. So like our plans are between a thousand a month and 2000 a month. And so you just need a couple of customers on board too, to have all of a sudden, a decent little MRR.
And then that can grow. Sorry to answer your question. The audience ops is primarily a done for you blog content as a service. So we power the blogs for a lot of software companies, actually a lot of WordPress plugin companies and like SaaS, B2B, SaaS. So. When they're coming out with educational blog content and lead magnets, my team writes those and we also publish them for you and do some social media for them.
We've also expanded into a small done with you podcasting service. And we also do some case study articles for customers as well. So instead of hiring a freelance writer and basically giving them a process for publishing blog posts on our blog as a company, like we can hire audience ops and there's a package that we can purchase from the website, or at least, you know, we can see it described.
And it's sold as a product. And then inside of that product is the service and we no longer need to like go out and hire a freelance writer and interview them and figure out what they should actually do. Yeah. And this is actually a good exercise, everyone that I recommend, but this is what I went through at the time.
I was thinking through the idea for audience ops because in my previous business restaurant, engine blog, content and Google search. Being visible on the first page of Google for all our key terms, that was the primary marketing channel for restaurant engine. And I was talking about that at MicroComp to people.
They were asking me questions about how do you hire writers? How do you give them a process? How do you take yourself out of that process? I got that question enough that it, it became apparent. Like there's an actual need here that I do know how to solve. Cause I solved it with restaurant engine. I hired teams and I, and I put the process together to remove myself.
And so. Here's the exercise that I recommend you, you go through, it's like, suppose that you had a customer come to you and say, you know, we have this problem. We know that we want to achieve some goal or do X and our business budget. Isn't really an issue for us right now. We just don't know exactly how to put all the pieces together and what, what we would need.
And this is like a dream scenario. Most agencies, you know, they've got to like haggle over scope and everything, but just imagine this for a second. That's your opportunity to. Basically come up with your best ideal scope. For what, what that should include. And at the time with audience ops, I was thinking, well, I don't just need a writer.
I could hire a writer, but I still need to continuously come up with new topics to write about. I don't want to have to feed the writer topics every time I don't want to publish typos. We were going to need an, a copy editor. We're going to need to upload and set up every article on the blog. I want to do like email opt-ins for, for content upgrades.
I want to do social media. Postings for every article that we do. Um, I want to send out an email newsletter with my articles. I've needed a featured image for every article. You know, like all these little things, it's like, Oh, I'll need to hire someone for that. Or I guess I still need to do that myself, or I need to edit their work myself, like all these things.
So, so I was like, what if a service just did all the things that you, if you want to do blog content in your strategy, here's a service that you could just plug in and be like, now we have. A blog running. And not that it's completely hands off, like we still want to interview and gather insights from the client and from their customers.
But, um, it's, it's set up so that you don't need to think about all those little things and, and we give you a dedicated writer and a dedicated copy editor, content manager. It keeps the schedule going. So, so I just wanted to like, like basically like check all those boxes. In a service and put a price on it.
And that, and that's really the exercise that I think everyone should think about when they're thinking about like productized services.
I want to talk a bit about basically some actionable advice for people who maybe want to dip their toes in productizing. When I think about it, like if I'm imagining myself as a freelancer or maybe just. No, starting from scratch. Like, it's kind of straightforward for me to see like how I could maybe start some sort of prototype service, but if I'm already an agency, like if I already have a team, do you think it's feasible to kind of like transition towards like a, more of a productized offering or is it better to start from scratch or do you have any tips for.
Maybe an, an agency that already has a team and they're already doing client work and, um, charging by the hour, basically. Yeah, it's, it's, it's certainly feasible. So there's a few pathways you can go. Like one thing that a lot of agencies do is they, as they start to introduce a productized offer that is basically designed to lead to a custom project.
But the initial offer is, is a paid service. Like it's very common for there to be a, uh, like a paid discovery project. Especially for like a website redesign, you know, over the course of four weeks, we will meet three times and we will assess your current website and, and your goals. And we'll develop a report and a game plan and a roadmap, maybe some wire frames.
And that is the deliverable. Right. And that costs X thousand dollars. And then you can take that and go shop it to other agencies. I mean, that's one model you can do other agencies that I've seen start to offer like maintenance services and hosting and maintenance and upgrades and all that kind of stuff for like a monthly fee.
I mean, that's something that actually agencies tend to float to other services, kind of just charged a bunch of money for the initial redesign. But really like, if you want to make your agency worth more, you know, if you want to add value and if you're ever going to sell your agency and get a higher multiple, what you really want is recurring revenue or retainer clients, because that's ultimately what a buyer would be buying from you.
And whether you plan to sell your agency or not, it's still a healthy. Business choice to seek more ongoing retainer services. And, you know, I know that a lot of agencies shy away from like the smaller maintenance tasks, like, Oh, it's not worth our time. Like we lose money on it because we're counting hours on it.
But if you can build the systems and processes to support that, And over time grow a base of subscribers that adds MRR and it just adds value. You know? So there's this model it's in that article, I was talking about one sub model in the prototype service world is what I sort of call it. The quote unquote unlimited model.
So like unlimited tasks per month or unlimited X deliverables per month. The reality is it's not truly unlimited. Usually it's like you get one maintenance task a day or a 30 minute task only, and you can only stack so many of those, but the concept is that over time, most customers are not going to utilize your service.
A hundred percent of the time, but it's still valuable because they know that you're there. Uh, I think WP curve was one of the first to offer this. Um, and now there are many more like it, but the idea is if you need on demand, help to manage your website, this service is there for, for a monthly fee. And it's kind of like an insurance policy because it's like, We might not use it for six months straight, but when we need it now, it's nice knowing that we have it now.
So that's another way to look at it. That's awesome. And it makes a lot of sense. I want to talk a bit about your other product that you're working on now called process kid. And as far as I understand, like process kid, It's like the ideal tool to use if you're also offering a productized service or even maybe if you just want to like start to spend some more time thinking about your processes and streamlining your agency a bit.
Um, sounds like process kit, um, kind of like has some of those things built into the tool? Yeah. So process kit is, is the software I've been, uh, designing and building for the last two years. It's, it's been grown with customers since last year. And yeah, we do have a lot of productized services naturally, you know, using it, but I'm also just a lot of agencies in general using it.
It's basically a tool for designing and building and automating your processes with your team and then turning those processes into actual tasks. For your team to, to execute, but the nice thing about having them in the same tool, so your processes and SLPs and your team's tasks together in one place, the benefit of that is that you can build automation rules into your tasks.
You know, the typical thing, and what I used to do is I used to document. SOP is over in Google docs. And then we do our tasks and whatever other task or project management tool that we use. But when your service is so predictable and standardized that every project is the same. And every time you onboard a new customer, they follow the same.
Flow. They, they fill out the same forms. They do all these different things. And internally you have the same people doing the same tasks. Do you want that to run very predictably? I mean, there's still naturally going to be variations. Like, Oh, if it's a client who purchased our gold package, then these tasks should apply.
And these tasks should be hidden. You know, you can build that sort of logic into process kit and, and integrate it with everything. So, um, the website, it says that it process could also kind of helps you actually stick to those processes that you have defined. And you just mentioned that process get probably replaces like Google docs and then plus like some project management tool.
How are you able to do that? Like, how are you able to help people stick to their processes and actually do whatever they. Thought they were going to do when they designed that process. That's a really good question. It's there's two key ways that we do that with process. One is your processes. So like 10 steps in a process become 10 tasks and a task list.
So all of the instructions that you've built in to the steps in your process can be texted. You could have embedded videos, screenshots, whatever it is, all of that gets automatically copied over. To your tasks. I mean, you're, you're, you're a developer, it's kind of like a class and an instance. You can have 10 different instances of the same process running, but every time instead of your team having to go search through Google docs or wherever it is to go find the instructions that they need.
It's right there in front of them in the same place where they check off the task. Also, they don't need to think about which way should I do this? Should I, should I follow these instructions or those instructions? Oh, I don't know. I better stop and go ask my manager. Um, all of that is removed because process kits, logic takes care of.
Those decisions so that you and your team can just focus on the next task and doing really good work. But the other thing that's unique to process kid is that we have this feature called propagating changes out. So you have a process say it's like your new customer onboarding process. And it's currently being used on 15 different customers who are currently onboarding this month.
Oh, we want to make some improvements to it. Yes, we, we realized we could streamline it in a few new ways. You make some changes in your process template, you just click one button propagate and it automatically updates all of your active projects and tasks, and it doesn't wipe out any progress that your team has made.
It just updates the changes. That's the way to like continuously improve your processes. Whereas like most agencies. They might spend a little time documenting stuff over in a dock somewhere, but then they leave it and it doesn't get touched for like a year. So that's awesome. I love the idea of process kit and I think it sounds like something that a lot of more agencies should be using.
And it sounds like potentially like a really good way to impress your customers and seem more professional. And I think there's definitely a lot of very professional WordPress agencies and freelancers out there, but they're also a lot of people that probably could need those almost want to call it guide rails.
Yeah. It's funny. You mentioned that almost all of our customers do invite their team and sometimes their clients. And we have like a guests feature for clients, but that's the direction we're going in this year. And next year is like, Really doubling down on my client portals and, uh, and intake forms, um, coming into process kits because that's, it's a really, really common use case agencies like inviting their clients in and giving them a branded experience, but controlling what they could see.
And then, and internally their team can see different things. Awesome. So I want to ask you finally, like besides process kit, are there any other tools or maybe even some general advice you want to recommend to people? If they're thinking about like how to start a productized service, or even just move a little bit in that direction with their agency.
Zapier comes to mind. I was going to say Zapier, huge Zapier fan. We've been developing a really solid Zapier integration since day one with process kit. If you're not using Zapier, you should start finding little ways to use it. And then once you find a few little ways, your Zapier account will look like, start to look like mine with like 50 different stamps going everywhere.
That's really great. Everyone's a little bit different on this, but just personally, I'm, I'm sort of like anti meeting. I try to reduce the number of like internal. Meetings that we have. So, so we rely pretty heavily on Slack, but also, um, I just really like to send video messages to people. I use loom.com for that.
So it's just nice to look at something and say like, Hey, just want to show, like, instead of like writing all this out on an email, let me just. Show you what I'm seeing on the screen. And there's a few little issues or some questions for you. Like I send that to my developer all the time, or I send it to my team and then they send me back something and we can get something resolved over like two days.
But we're in different time zones. We don't have to actually like have a call. I liked doing that a lot. Awesome. Brian, if there's anything you want to pluck to, people are mentioned, feel free to do that. I know you have a course as well. That teaches basically how to start a productized service. So if this was interesting for people, they'll probably find the course even more interesting.
Yeah. So I do have the course called productize, but also on process kit, which is the software we were talking about. There's now a free course on how to, uh, automate your processes, uh, for service companies. And, uh, and we've got a lot of new content coming out over there as well. Nice. We'll link to all of that in the show notes.
Yeah. Brian, thanks for coming on the show. It's a pleasure talking about this stuff and it's nice to kind of get into the business side of things I think, and not just all the tech stuff. So I thank you for coming on. Yeah. Sounds good. Peter. I want to come back on and talk about all the tech. Okay. We'll see what we can figure out.
Awesome. Thank you, man. All right. See ya.